guide

Carbon neutral: what it really means, and how we can achieve it

29 January 2021 | Aimee Tweedale

In the fight against the climate crisis, there’s a lot of talk about becoming “carbon neutral”. 

You might hear this phrase from brands, companies, and even politicians. But what does the term carbon neutral mean?

What does carbon neutral really mean?

Read on to learn all about the definitions of “carbon neutral”, “net zero” and “zero carbon”. Plus, we’ll look at what it will actually take to get to net zero, and what changes we’re making at OVO to reach that goal.

What does “carbon neutral” really mean?

Here’s a thought experiment: imagine the world is a giant bathtub. There are 7.5 billion of us sitting around the bathtub, slowly filling it with water from our own little hosepipes. It’s starting to look like it’s in danger of overflowing.

The water is like the carbon emissions that are filling up the Earth’s atmosphere, and the hosepipes we’re holding are the amount we’re each responsible for releasing – aka, our carbon footprint.

Scientists have said that we need to stop the carbon emissions in our atmosphere from going over 430ppm (parts per million) if we want to avoid the planet warming by more than an average of 1.5°. That’s the temperature that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned will be a major point of no return for the climate crisis. Right now, we’re at 415ppm1.

Okay: back to the bathtub. Looking at the rising water, you decide that it’s the right thing to do to stop pouring water, because you realise how bad it will be for everyone when it overflows. So, you reduce the amount of water you’re pouring as much as you possibly can – but you simply can’t stop it completely. 

You shout across to another person and say: “If I give you some money to buy a smaller hosepipe, would you reduce the amount of water you’re putting into this bath on my behalf?” The other person is happy with the trade, so they cut down the water they’re pouring in. You could also grab a bucket, and scoop some water back out of the tub. Both of these are ways of offsetting the amount of water that you’re pouring into the tub.

How does this relate to carbon? Well, when a person, company or country says they are “carbon neutral”, it means they’ve reduced the amount of carbon dioxide they’re responsible for releasing into the Earth’s atmosphere, as much as they can. And for the part that’s left, they’ve used carbon offsetting – in other words, they financed someone else to reduce their carbon emissions, or they removed some carbon from the atmosphere.

Confused by all this carbon jargon? Read our full guide for more detail.

What’s the difference between “carbon neutral”, “zero carbon”, and “net zero”?

Zero carbon definition

If something is “zero carbon”, that means that it doesn’t emit any carbon at all. Some eco-friendly houses are zero carbon, for example, because they have their own renewable power sources, such as solar panels, and so don’t rely on fossil fuels to run.

Net zero definition

“Net zero” is similar to carbon neutral. It’s still a fairly new term, so sometimes you might hear it used interchangeably with other words in this article. But as governments and corporations adopt net zero targets worldwide, organisations like the UN and the Science Based Targets Initiative are beginning to agree on a definition.

When companies or organisations say they’re “net zero”, it means they’ve cut their emissions down as much as they possibly can, in line with what scientists recommend. 

For what’s left, they offset it by taking steps to permanently remove carbon from the atmosphere. To go back to our earlier metaphor, that means they’re scooping water out of the bathtub – not paying others to change the size of their hosepipe. 

So, how else do we remove carbon from the atmosphere? With carbon sinks, like woodland, wetlands, and peatland. Trees are excellent carbon sinks, which means they absorb carbon. That’s why we at OVO choose to plant them. Find out more about how we’ve planted over 1 million trees since 2015, and why we’re setting out to plant even more

In the future, we’ll have more man-made solutions to remove carbon from the atmosphere. But for now, nature is our best bet!

Plan Zero is our goal to get to net zero carbon by 2030. Remember: the definitions of zero carbon and net zero are slightly different – we’re aiming for the latter. Read more about Plan Zero here, and ask us any questions you have in our forum.

Trees are excellent carbon sinks, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere

Why getting to net zero carbon matters for the world

Why all this talk about carbon? Simple: carbon emissions caused by human activity are the biggest driver of the climate crisis

Since the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, levels of carbon in our atmosphere have risen by 40%2. And since pre-Industrial times, the Earth’s temperature has already risen by more than 1°3.

If we want to avoid the very worst effects of climate change, scientists say that we can’t let the global temperature rise by more than 1.5°. To do that, we need to rapidly decrease the amount of carbon dioxide we release into our atmosphere, and get that down to net zero by around 2050.

Many governments have set, or are considering legally binding targets for their countries to become carbon neutral, or achieve net zero carbon emissions. That includes some of the world’s biggest emitters – like China, who’ve set themselves a target of becoming carbon neutral by 2060. In the UK, we were the first country in the world to set a legally binding target to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. 

These are big, ambitious goals – and will require big changes in the way people live and work all around the world.

Wondering how much carbon you put into the atmosphere, and what you could do to change it? Read our guide to figuring out your own carbon footprint. OVO members can track their emissions with our handy Carbon Tracker.

What can be done to achieve net zero by 2050?

How do we get to the UK government’s 2050 target? Here’s a quick overview of the journey to carbon neutral status in a few different areas.

Smarter, more efficient homes

First things first, to get to net zero emissions, we need to rethink energy. We want to stop being dependent on coal, and create a greener future where we can be 100% reliant on renewable electricity (which is almost zero carbon).

We also want to be more energy-efficient, and stop wasting energy wherever we can. This will mean building more well-insulated homes, and taking inspiration from European passive houses, which are ultra-efficient, and don’t have gas-fired central heating systems. It will also mean finding more low-carbon ways of heating our homes, in the journey to ditch fossil fuels and decarbonise the way we live.

In a carbon-neutral future, we should also be able to control our energy demand using smart appliances in the home, and battery storage technology. In fact, a recent study by Loughborough University highlighted how important smart homes will become in the fight against climate change4

Intrigued? Read about OVO’s Smart Home products here, to find out how you could make your home greener.

Transport

The government’s recent announcement that the sale of new petrol and diesel cars will be banned by 2030 is the first step towards a net zero future.

But while electric cars don’t produce carbon emissions on the roads, there are still emissions involved in the process of building them. You can learn more about this by reading our guide to how environmentally-friendly electric cars really are.

So to reach net zero, we also need more people to shift towards using public transport as much as possible. That means we need more convenient and greener options. Mayor Sadiq Khan has promised that the London Underground will be totally powered by zero carbon sources by 2030.

Sad news for jetsetters: flying is the area where we need the biggest rethink, transport-wise. The aviation industry in the UK has pledged to make flying carbon neutral by 2050 – and it’s possible that in the future, it will be totally powered by low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels. But right now, we need a shift towards staycations, and less international travel.

Waste

Another roadblock on the journey to net zero is, literally, rubbish. Landfills account for 1.9% of global greenhouse gas emissions5, and they’re filling up more and more every day.

Did you know that if we all stopped wasting food, we’d reduce the world’s emissions by 8%? That’s because of all the energy-intensive processes that get food from the field to the supermarket, and finally, to your fork. To get to net zero, we need to stop producing food that ends up going straight in the bin. 

We all have a part to play in cutting the carbon footprint of the things we throw away, by planning our meals, shopping sustainably, and recycling. But for the UK to meet the net zero target, we’re going to need to see big policy changes when it comes to packaging and waste disposal, too.

For more on this, read our complete guide to recycling, how it works, and why it matters.

Food

Food is responsible for a whopping 26% of greenhouse gas emissions, with almost a third of that coming from the production of meat and fish6.

Moving the population towards a diet that’s more powered by plants will be a major step towards achieving our net zero goals. Breeding fewer animals would mean that the agriculture industry could take up less land, produce fewer emissions, and be able to shift towards more climate-friendly farming. 

Embracing nature

Reaching carbon neutrality will make our future greener – literally! To achieve our carbon goals, we’ll need a huge programme of reforestation in the UK. Think greener cities, more woodland, and spaces being reclaimed by nature by 2050.

Read about the top 8 benefits of planting trees.

What are businesses doing to reach net zero?

Lots of companies are now setting net zero targets. In fact, 1,397 businesses, including OVO, have joined the UN’s Race to Zero initiative – a global campaign for organisations to join forces in the fight for a net zero world. 

While the UK government’s target is to reach net zero by 2050, some companies are setting themselves the challenge of getting there faster. Why? Because if everyone does what they can, as quickly as they can, we can reach our national targets together. Ambitious targets inspire businesses to act with more urgency. 

In the journey to cutting out carbon, businesses might make changes such as switching fleets of petrol or diesel cars to electric vehicles, or designing recyclable or reusable packaging for their products.

Read more about the definitions of ‘eco-friendly’, ‘sustainable’, and ‘green’, and the differences between them.

OVO’s commitment to a net zero future

Here at OVO, we not only want to become a net zero business by 2030, but also help our members create net zero carbon homes. 

To quote our CEO, Stephen Fitzpatrick: “We’re mobilising all our members to form a zero carbon community and providing them with tools and services they need to help them eliminate the carbon emissions from their homes.”

We’re supporting this movement with initiatives like our Zero Carbon Heating Trial, encouraging members to try out carbon-free alternatives to heat their homes. 

But the switch to zero carbon living isn’t going to happen overnight. Many of our members still have to rely on gas boilers to power their homes – and until we have widespread battery storage technology, our National Grid will continue to rely on fossil fuels. 

That’s why we created our green upgrade, OVO Beyond, for members who want to do their bit to cut carbon, reduce energy waste, and plant more trees.

OVO Beyond members not only receive 100% carbon-neutral energy7 as standard, but also personalised tips on how to make their homes more energy-efficient. Plus, we plant 5 trees a year for every OVO Beyond member8.

Ready to join us? Get a quote in under 2 minutes by hitting the button below. 

Sources and references

1 https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/carbon-dioxide/

2 https://www.nrdc.org/stories/global-climate-change-what-you-need-know

3 https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-12-02/global-temperatures-already-1-2-c-above-pre-industrial-levels

4 https://www.energylivenews.com/2020/07/06/smart-homes-could-help-halve-carbon-emissions-and-energy-bills/

5 https://ourworldindata.org/ghg-emissions-by-sector

6 https://ourworldindata.org/food-ghg-emissions

7 By providing 100% carbon-neutral gas (15% green gas and 85% offset) on top of the 100% renewable electricity you get as standard, and offsetting all associated lifecycle carbon emissions involved in the production and consumption of your electricity & gas, OVO Beyond reduces your yearly carbon emissions from the energy used in your home that's supplied by OVO to net zero. The renewable electricity we sell is backed by renewable certificates (Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin certificates (REGOs)). See here for details on Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin certificates and how these work. The green gas we sell is backed via renewable certificates (Renewable Gas Guarantees of Origin (RGGOs)). See here for details on Renewable Gas Guarantees of Origin and how these work. We offset the remaining emissions by supporting UN REDD+ carbon reduction projects that are certified to the Verified Carbon Standard or the Gold Standard.

8 OVO plants 5 trees for every OVO Beyond member through our award-winning programme I Dig Trees with The Conservation Volunteers. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so tree-planting helps to slow down climate change. Since 2015 we have planted over 1 million trees.

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